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‘In the end, we’re just like any other person’: Metro-east Muslims profess their faith as peaceful

Muslims in metro east react to Orlando shootings

Members of the Belleville Masjid and Islamic Education Center react to Orlando shootings and political climate for the muslim community.
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Members of the Belleville Masjid and Islamic Education Center react to Orlando shootings and political climate for the muslim community.

During the weekly sermon at the Belleville Masjid and Islamic Education Center, Imam Saleh Saleh spoke about the prophet Muhammad, and the tradition of fasting during the Ramadan season, which runs through July 5.

Saleh touched upon the daily ritual of breaking the fast as most of those in attendance sat on the carpeted floor of the recently expanded place of worship, which draws people from St. Clair and Madison counties and other parts of the region.

Before the final prayer of the Friday service, where the roughly 150 barefoot people in the mosque rested on their knees and repeatedly bowed, Saleh spoke about violence in the world.

“Brothers and sisters, we hear many (commit) violence in the name of Islam ... but Islam is the religion of mercy. All of those killing and hurting other people, they are not from Islam ... they do not understand Islam.” Saleh said, without mentioning last week’s mass shooting in Orlando that left 50 dead, including the shooter, and 53 wounded.

“We do not accept or agree in any shape or form, any of those acts of violence,” Saleh added. “Whoever kills one person, acts as if he kills all mankind.”

People of the Islamic faith have received amplified scrutiny with reports that the Orlando shooter attacked Pulse Nightclub, a gay bar, and pledged allegiance to ISIS in a 911 phone call. People who follow the Islamic faith also have had to deal with statements from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Trump has said he would temporarily suspend Muslim immigration into the U.S. from any region of the world where there “is a proven history” of radicalism, and would develop policies of “responsible immigration” to stop Muslims from “pouring in” to the country.

We do not accept or agree in any shape or form, any of those acts of violence. Whoever kills one person, acts as if he kills all mankind.

Imam Saleh Saleh

Mustafa Mahmood, 21, of Smithton, said he initially found the proposal humorous when it was made last year, but he no longer feels that way.

“Now it’s a little concerning. There’s actually a lot of people who believe that’s a way. That’s not what the United States is about, that’s not the foundation of America,” Mahmood said. “America was built upon being inclusive, and there’s so many Muslims who contribute to society as doctors, lawyers, servicemen ... To say banning all Muslims is the solution is ludicrous and not indicative of anything this country believes in.”

Mahmood finds himself defending his faith on social media if someone tries to paint it with a broad brush.

“You defend yourself, you don’t get angry ... you talk with intelligence, you talk calmly, and explain yourself and usually people are accepting of yourself,” Mahmood said.

Since the attack in San Bernardino, where two homegrown extremists killed 14 people in a mass shooting, the Belleville Islamic center has paid for a St. Clair County sheriff’s deputy to stand guard outside during Friday services to provide security and help people feel safe.

“We had people drive by and speak unnecessary, unhappy comments, not necessarily threatening, but degrading, humiliating words, as if we were the ones who committed the acts of violence,” said Amy Nabulsi, spokeswoman for the Islamic Center.

America was built upon being inclusive and there’s so many Muslims who contribute to society as doctors, lawyers, servicemen ... To say banning all Muslims is the solution is ludicrous and not indicative of anything this country believes in.

Mustafa Mahmood, 21, of Smithton

Nabulsi said attacks such as those in Orlando and San Bernardino and Paris, where someone kills others in the name of Islam, make her feel horrible.

“Anytime you see an attack on TV, you cringe, and you pray, ‘Please don’t let it be a Muslim,’” Nabulsi said. “As soon as it comes out, ‘Darn, it was a Muslim.’ It’s very horrible, it’s a very humiliating feeling.”

For Nabulsi, who dresses with a scarf covering her head and long sleeves, even if its hot outside, being Muslim can be difficult.

“You’re out there in the public eye, especially women who are covered. People see you and (say) ‘Oh, she’s Muslim. What’s she going to do?’ You could see the look in their eye,” Nabulsi said.

But the Swansea resident is willing to openly speak to others who have questions about her faith.

“Even at Walmart, if someone is looking at me, I start a conversation. That’s the only way,” Nabulsi said.

Anytime you see an attack on TV, you cringe, and you pray ‘Please don’t let it be a Muslim.’ As soon as it comes out, ‘Darn, it was a Muslim.’ It’s very horrible, it’s a very humiliating feeling.

Amy Nabulsi, Belleville Masjid and Islamic Education Center spokeswoman

Part of the mosque’s goals is to educate people about the true goals of Islam, and to keep youngsters from being influenced by extremists’ messages.

“We continuously speak with children. We tell them this is wrong — any form of violence. We are not the judge. Only God is the judge,” Nabulsi said.

She added, “We are here to be peaceful and serve humanity in a peaceful way. Killing, or anything negative against another person, is absolutely forbidden. Our best method is continuously talking to our children, and telling them this is wrong, this is not what our religion preaches.”

The Orlando attack came at a gay nightclub, which led to President Barack Obama calling it an act of hate, as well as an act of terror.

Nabulsi said she doesn’t judge one’s sexual orientation, and the religion teaches its followers to treat gays and lesbians with respect. However, gay and lesbian orientation is against Islamic teachings.

“I think it goes against teachings of many religions as well, but in that respect, it does go against our religion, but it doesn’t justify any negative behavior toward these people,” Nabulsi said.

Nabulsi said Muslims’ true beliefs are peace, worshiping God, serving others and helping make the world better.

“We’re just trying to live a normal life like everyone else,” she said. “Maybe we’re dressed differently. We speak a different language. In the end, we’re just like any other person who wants to raise their children in a well-rounded environment, a safe, secure environment, and live life in peace.”

Frequently asked questions about Islam

Why do men and women sit separately during services at the mosque?

It’s not because women are treated as second-class citizens, said Amy Nabulsi, spokeswoman for the Belleville Masjid and Islamic Education Center.

“It is simply for the protection of the woman. Our covering, our modesty, our praying behind the men is all for the protection of the women,” Nabulsi said. “When we come to the mosque, our simple focus is to be on worship. If the women were sitting in front of the men, your focus is going to be lost. It’s simply a way of protecting the woman, and not in any way degrading her.”

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, where Muslims fast every day from dawn until dusk. The season is about worshiping God and serving others, Nabulsi said.

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